The Impact of Online Surveillance on Press Freedom


Human communication has significantly revolutionized during the 20th and 21st centuries. While books were widespread only a few centuries ago, people currently use devices that connect them with anyone worldwide by touching a button.

Communication advancement has significantly transformed journalism, as reporters and journalists operate in diverse ways globally. As the 21st century unfolds, various forms of media platforms and journalists will continue evolving to respond to digital journalism trends

In addition, journalism has changed significantly during the last 20th and 21st centuries. The traditional journalism idea was that reporters acted as independent sources, trying to deliver news objectively and factually. Despite this tradition remaining intact in some news avenues, more access to technologies has resulted in the proliferation of activist and citizen journalists who openly have a point of view or bias but still try to promote this perspective through a lens that entails editing, fair framing, and reporting. Journalists in the digital age operate in a world where the news cycle shifts faster, making it more challenging to balance in-depth and timely reporting.

This paper seeks to shed light on the impact of online surveillance on press freedom. The paper discusses the challenges that online surveillance poses to investigative journalism and freedom of information. The paper also addresses the impact of online surveillance on journalists and the challenges they face in the digital age.

Impact of Online Surveillance on Journalistic Freedom

Online surveillance is defined as the monitoring of users’ computer activity and data stored on a hard drive or data being transferred over the Internet. This definition means that third parties, including ISPs (Internet Service Providers), cybercriminals, and government agencies, can monitor and log into internet traffic online and computer activity, as well as offline and online data. 

Security government agencies worldwide use major tech firms to facilitate their access to private information. Even if firms are reluctant to disclose information about their customers, they have no choice in many cases since agencies such as the NSA can just compel them to comply with their demands. 

Surveillance not only violates people’s right to privacy but also interferes with the right to hold opinions and the right to freedom of expression. Mass and targeted surveillance systems can undermine journalists’ right to form an opinion for fear of being reprimanded or resulting in repressive outcomes. The right to freedom of expression is especially apparent within the context of journalists as well as members of the media who can be placed under surveillance due to their journalistic activities.

The surveillance of journalistic sources could negatively affect the right to freedom of expression because it breaches one’s confidentiality in their communications. When confidentiality is undermined, it is nearly impossible to restore it. It also goes against the principle and importance of source protection, which has been upheld in various jurisdictions and rulings.

Challenges Online Surveillance Impose on Investigative Reporting and the Free Flow of Information

Online surveillance has a deleterious effect on the protection of journalistic sources. Encryption is an essential tool for freedom of expression on the Internet. It enables journalists to communicate securely, but recently, journalists have globally experienced rising digital surveillance. More specifically, investigative journalists uncovering abuse of power, human rights violations, and corruption are often victims of rampant surveillance and illegal abuse and collection of personal data.

Private actors and governments use software—particularly cyberweapons or spyware—to penetrate confidential, encrypted information. This makes journalists and their sources, families, and friends vulnerable. Sophisticated spyware, such as NSO Group’s Pegasus, is marketed as a digital tool for enabling governments to fight crime but has been misused to target journalists.

For example, in Jordan, Suhair Jaradat, a freelance columnist for various media outlets, was a victim of online surveillance. Specializing in investigative reporting, Jaradat was among the four Jordanian human rights defenders targeted by the Pegasus spyware for their writing. As a commentator on Jordanian politics, she occasionally criticizes the authorities. As a result, Front Line Defenders and Citizen Lab informed her that her devices were targeted and surveilled by Jordanian Government spyware and agencies.

While the Jordanian National Cyber Security Center denied any government involvement, this case is part of a global trend in the emergence and proliferation of surveillance technologies in the Middle East, where some governments take advantage of the fragility of the rule of law and the legal gaps. Thus, investigative journalists find it difficult to investigate sensitive topics and hold their governments to account since domestic legal frameworks inadequately protect them.

Sources Confidentiality Protection: Between Chances and Challenges

Confidential sources offer information to journalists provided that their identities will be hidden during the reporting of the details that they have provided. Journalistic sources’ confidentiality is critical to the ability of journalists to appropriately investigate stories and protect whistleblowers and individuals who offer information to them.

The confidentiality tenet in journalism stipulates that journalists should not be compelled to disclose confidential sources of information or reveal other materials help for purposes of journalism unless a court has warranted disclosure after a fair and full public hearing. Online surveillance undermines this tenet since it compels journalists to disclose their sources, curtailing media freedom and freedom of speech and hindering the free flow of information.

Online surveillance against journalists can undermine source protection. This is because such sources feel comfortable supplying information premised on reporters’ privileges – which is the right of journalists and reporters to refuse to reveal their information and sources in court.

Government surveillance forces journalists to increasingly feel pressured to embrace strategies that ensure they do not leave a digital trail that could be monitored. Some investigative journalists become reluctant to report or investigate specific issues that might incur surveillance. 

Consequences of Surveillance on Journalists: Case Studies.


Spyware Predator hacked Thanasis Koukakis’ phone in April 2022. Koukakis is the CNN financial editor in Greece and a contributor to leading international media outlets. This hacking occurred between July and September 2021 when the journalist investigated corruption and money laundering topics. The Greek government denied any form of involvement in the surveillance but diverted the blame to a private actor. Revelations disclosed that the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP) did the surveillance in 2020 for national security reasons. The government failed to respond to his request about what had happened one year before, thus negatively impacting his work.

El Salvador:

Founded in El Salvador, El Faro is predominantly an independent media organization. It is one of the media outlets targeted by Pegasus software. According to forensic researchers, EL Faro has been targeted on a number of occasions with infections. While the government has denied any links to Pegasus, the president has had a hostile to independent media in the country. Many media workers have suffered violent language, intimidation, and physical threats. For example, EL Faro found that 22 mobile phones of its employees had spyware infections. During this period, the channel’s reporters wrote extensively regarding sensitive issues that involved the administration of president Nayib Bukele, including a scandal that involved the government negotiating a contract with organized crime syndicates. In addition, since March 2022, due to a series of killings linked to criminal gangs, El Salvador has been placed under a state of emergency, with authorities using this to intercept communications. Covert digital agents have made it difficult for journalists to retain or obtain sources to tell stories regarding the recent rise in human rights violations, such as arbitrary detentions. 


Recently, human rights organizations have documented the deterioration of the media landscape in Hungary. PM Viktor Orban has asserted control over the country’s media in an unprecedented way using Hungary’s surveillance laws that enable the state to use national security reasons to spy on anyone. Pegasus targeted various Hungarian journalists, with Panyi who works for Direkt36 investigative journalism center being a victim. Journalist Panyi has particularly contended that he is worried regarding the violation of his source protection rights. 

The ethical concerns associated with government surveillance will likely increase with the advances and innovations occasioned by technology, highlighting the need for organizations and governments to consider this during decision-making about electronic surveillance. Data collection can be done in diverse ways, but it should be done ethically and legally. Privacy involves surveillance, collecting and storing information appropriately. When information is used unintentionally, it violates privacy and raises ethical concerns. Government surveillance can violate journalists’ privacy when information is used for other unintended purposes. This also leads to the risk of harm since government agencies can use the information to monitor journalists’ behavior. For example, government surveillance creates an environment of threat, which can make journalists and journalistic sources who do not engage in any wrongdoing to change their behavior, including how to speak, communicate, and act – in what is referred to as mass surveillance’s chilling effect. 

The infringement on privacy is apparent since indiscriminate mass surveillance is against the fundamental right to privacy. In addition, undue interference with journalists’ privacy limits the free exchange and development of ideas. In journalism and communication, restrictions of anonymity pose a chilling effect on journalists and informants who may be reluctant to report fearing double victimization

Effects of Online Surveillance on Journalists

Surveillance can deter whistleblowers and impede the exposure of human rights violations, corruption, or other abuses of power. It is worth noting that investigative journalism and the media play a crucial role in highlighting corruption allegations and fighting against impunity. Media reporting is also a critical way of detecting corruption cases. Journalists argue that exposing corruption in surveillance regimes implies disturbing ruthless and powerful people, which is a risk that they live with. Journalists are most concerned about actual or threatened legal action in terms of civil suits for libel or even criminal prosecution for publishing classified information or defamation. Baseless legal actions intimidate journalists from exposing corruption since they take time to resolve and entail substantial psychological and legal costs. In some instances, large firms threaten to sue journalists, thus making journalists decide whether it is worth taking a risk to publish a story. Other concerns relate to political retaliation and attacks on professional credibility. Some journalists receive death threats and reports of colleagues who have been killed for their reporting and investigating corruption, thus violating their right to life and freedom of expression. The most exposed are independent or freelance journalists. For instance, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese investigative journalist, was killed due to her investigations into organized crime and corruption, sending shockwaves across Europe. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2017 reported that 368 journalists had been killed since 2012 while pursuing news stories. Such human rights abuses intimidate investigative reporters and limit their ability to expose abuses of power. In the meantime, such rights abuses can limit journalists’ capacity to hold the government accountable for its actions. Since journalists’ role as watchdog becomes compromised, it means that political democracy’s sustainability is challenged. 

Challenges Faced by Journalists in the Digital Era 

Technological Vulnerabilities and Cybersecurity Risks:

Digital communication platforms used by journalists, including messaging apps, cloud storage, and email expose them to certain vulnerabilities during their work. Since digital devices allow easy access to journalists’ digital communication every day, it means they collect data on their personal identities and work. Internet services such as emails, messaging, and social media also expose journalists’ activities to the oversight of malicious actors and governments. These forms of digital surveillance threaten the personal safety of journalists and have far-reaching consequences. Newsrooms and journalists are inclined to censor their news contents, thus resulting in the violation of the freedom of speech. In addition, digital surveillance violates civil rights such as digital and privacy rights. 

The three most common cloud database services are private cloud, infrastructure as a service (IaaS), and software-as-a-service. A cloud database is developed and accessed through a cloud platform that allows enterprise users to host data without purchasing dedicated hardware. Cloud databases have increasingly become easy for third-party actors to access, thus detecting, collecting, and storing the personal identification of users and their communication data because of diverse reasons. First, many cloud databases fail to enhance their level of security in case of sensitive data within their storage. Sensitive data may be in the form of Personal Identifiable Information (PII), which offers a hint for third-party actors to trace an individual, or data of confidential activities and private communication. Such data is often stored with normal/common information, which is safeguarded by the lowest security level. The second reason is that cloud databases often have a low visibility into what should be stored in cloud apps and the lack of capacity to deter malicious actors from accessing sensitive information. In this regard, cloud computing services’ defense systems are susceptible to malicious attacks and forced entry on sensitive data stored within clouds. 

Existing evidence also demonstrates that internet service providers (ISPs), including social media, digital communication, cloud computing, and mobile app providers have become more vulnerable to the whims of malicious and government actors to gather and detain people’s data. Besides cloud computing, other internet services such as mobile and social media apps also increase internet users’ vulnerability, including journalists and their sources. For instance, there have been allegations that Facebook secretly collects and stores PII by creating and launching a number of mobile apps. Such apps utilize locating tracking, voice assistance, or recording services to trace users without consent.

Such surveillance poses serious concerns and security risks, including data breaches, hacking, and interception of communication. For example, malicious and government actors have been deploying malware for launching digital attacks and manipulating the obfuscated and encrypted internet use. Some of the most prevalent malware attacks are media malware, remote control, denial of service, phishing, man-in-the-middle, or proxy server attacks. Numerous examples illustrate that malware attacks often act as a way of the government conducting journalists’ digital surveillance.

Furthermore, digital surveillance has exacerbated the rising threats to the personal safety of journalists as these actors, whether the government or malicious attacks, usually utilize facial recognition and location tracking for monitoring journalists’ physical movements and IP addresses. Globally, new technology has become influential for non-benevolent actors and governments to track journalists’ physical movements. Internet services such as messaging, emails, and social media also make their activities vulnerable to the oversight of malicious and government actors.

There are various specific incidents or case studies demonstrating how digital communication channels have been compromised to intercept digital communication and trace internet users’ activities, resulting in infringement on journalistic freedom. For example, Google traced a hacktivist’s IP addresses through its Gmail email service and recorded the content of his emails under the US law enforcement’s request. The other example is the NSA Program that gathered and intercepted data of digital documents, digital communication, and user activities from nine digital firms, including Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Finally, Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi is another prominent example. Two months before his murder in Turkey’s Saudi Embassy, Khashoggi’s encrypted messages were tapped by the government of Saudi Arabia. This example demonstrated how malware attacks are used for surveilling journalists and how they pose threats to the personal safety of journalists and impede them from doing their work in a comfortable way.

The vulnerability of journalists to digital surveillance can also directly be attributed to the sensitivity of the topics they cover. They are highly likely to be surveilled when covering contentious, conspicuous, or sensitive issues, including terrorism, intelligence agencies, organized crimes, foreign or military policy, government actions, national security, and religious controversies. For instance, Hong Kong journalists reported that they may grapple with censorship on their WeChat communication when they cover issues that relate to Chinese politics. Vulnerability is also influenced by newsroom types and media format. This depends on the systematic support that newsrooms provide for journalists to safeguard their digital safety, including a cyber security department that offers cyber security tools and training. The third factor is journalists’ newsroom position. For example, journalists are more vulnerable compared to their editors since their work needs exposure and direct contact with confidential sources unlike editors who do their work behind the scenes. At the same time, investigative reporters are more vulnerable than other reporters since they often cover conspicuous, contentious, and sensitive topics. In the same breadth, part-time journalists and freelancers could suffer more digital surveillance threats than full-time peers due to the less protection they receive from news organizations. Finally, journalists’ technical skills or competence in computer skills also impact their use of digital safeguards. Journalists are likelier to utilize digital protection if they have computer knowledge due to their awareness of the consequences and threats of civilian mass surveillance. In this regard, journalists with less familiarity with computer skills could be more vulnerable since they lack awareness and knowledge on how to safeguard their digital safety. 

Intimidation, Harassment, and Threats to Journalists’ Safety:

Risks faced by journalists in the digital realm: online harassment and physical endangerment:

Various forms of intimidation and harassment are faced by journalists online, such as cyberbullying, doxing, trolling, and smear campaigns. Online violence can be at times viewed as less serious compared to offline violence. Notwithstanding, online harassment and violence is linked to offline threats, and could predict a real-world threat or turn into offline attacks. For instance, a survey of female journalists established that 20% of the respondents reported offline abuse or attacks connected to online violence that they had experienced. In addition, since most modern communication happens online, online harassment can dramatically affect journalists’ exercise of the freedom of expression, particularly in case they self-censor in response. Journalists experience diverse forms of harassment and violence that are facilitated by digital communications, including doxing or sharing through the internet of PII including address, location, and name which can be quite dangerous for journalists since it can enable potential attackers to locate and harm them. On the other hand, trolling or sending or posting inflammatory or insulting messages regarding a particular person can harm a journalist’s sense of wellbeing and safety. Smear campaigns can also ruin the reputation of a journalist. The core concern of such attacks on journalists is the level of planning or coordination by malicious actors with the aim of harming or discrediting the journalist


Rana Ayyub’s case: The brutal harassment of the Indian journalist Rana Ayyub escalated from online trolling to headline-grabbing persecution. She was prevented from flying to Europe to talk about journalists’ intimidation. Ayyub was an outspoken critic of Narendra Modi’s government. Her reporting also exposed her to harassment by far-right Hindu groups. This is a case showing how female journalists have been harassed and targeted by online violence. It also demonstrates how journalists under Modi’s government have been harassed and their rights violated. 

Irish Times Correspondent: An online smear campaign targeted to smear Kitty Holland and Dara Mac Donail online. The two journalists were reporting from an Ashtown’s migrant campaign, when they witnessed an act of violence. After they published the story, Holland became a victim of an organized online campaign on social media. Such cases have been eminently captured by the Mapping Media Freedom organization. 

Chilling Effects of Threats on Journalistic Practices and Freedom of Expression:

Threats and harassment to journalists have caused their colleagues to experience a chilling effect. This is essentially a form of self-censorship in day-to-day media use, negatively impacting journalists’ freedom of expression, well-being and autonomy. They are aware that they might also be threatened or surveilled. In this regard, some of them experience a risky professional environment that can compel them to quit their work. Besides cautiousness, they are haunted by anxiety, paranoia, trauma, and fear occasioned by digital surveillance, and these feelings aggravate their mental health issues.. The fear of being surveilled by the “Big Brother” has permeated journalists’ personal lives. They always hold the assumption that other actors are listening or intercepting their communication and information. In addition, they are entangled in a feeling of powerlessness that they do not have control over their lives and feel helpless due to the belief that their lives are constantly monitored. According to the Digital Rights Foundation Report (2017), digital surveillance leads to the feelings of shame and fear among journalists. Inadequate supportive culture for addressing these issues means that journalists have to grapple with cyberattacks and digital surveillance alone, thus compounding the deterioration of their mental health issues.

Significance of Source Protection in Journalism 

Importance of Protecting Sources Confidentiality:

Proponents of safeguarding confidential sources stipulate that journalists require an adequately-established legal privilege to safeguard them from being compelled to disclose confidential information. In addition, protecting confidential sources lays a foundation for ethical reporting. Upon journalists agreeing to safeguard someone’s identity, it is important that they make every effort to do so, particularly in circumstances whereby a source could be harmed. Journalistic sources’ confidentiality is key to enabling journalists to appropriately investigate stories, and protect whistleblowers and individuals who provide information to them. Efforts to force the disclosure of sources pose a chilling effect on media freedom and freedom of speech, and deter the free flow of information. Protecting sources has become even more important in the digital era where surveillance technologies are justified under national security grounds when the actual aim is to target journalists and their confidential sources. Thus, source protection is a critical tenet in journalism since it helps journalists to communicate with their sources and develop and share ideas, which can ensure that journalists do not get into self-censorship. Source protection is further critical for upholding the tenets of privacy and ensuring that journalists use anonymity and encryption tools to secure their communications and safeguard the confidentiality of their sources. Moreover, source protection helps to maintain credibility, trust, and the flow of information since it guarantees the digital safety and security for journalists and their sources. 

Role of Whistleblowers and Anonymous Sources in Exposing Corruption and Abuses:

Whistleblowers play a critical role in disclosing information regarding corruption, power abuses or wrongdoing committed. Whistleblowing is among the most effective ways of detecting and preventing corruption and other forms of malpractices. Wrongdoing can be prevented if more people come forward to expose issues to the media or their organizations. 

One of the most famous high-profile cases of a whistleblower in exposing human rights abuses was of Chelsea Manning. In 2010, US Army intelligent analyst Manning released the largest series of classified documents within the history of the US, mainly published by WikiLeaks. It included documents that described abuse, torture of prisoners, detention and other abuses, sparking debate regarding the role of technology, transparency and ethics within the US military. He was convicted of violating the Espionage Act, being sentenced to 35 years in prison before President Obama granted him clemency in his final days as the president. He has continued advocating for transgender rights and the freedom of information, making significant contributions to public interest information. 

In addition, some of the major news stories are attributed to whistle-blowers. Such stories usually serve public interest by disclosing safety wrongdoing or malpractices in a way that safeguards society. An example is Queensland’s case of Dr. Death. Toni Hoffman, an intensive care nurse unit manager, disclosed in 2005 that surgeon Jayant M. Patel had engaged in wrongdoing in a scandal that rocked the government of Queensland, resulting in a key commission of inquiry, and making international news. Patel was eventually linked to the death of 80 people at Bundaberg Base Hospital, and it was only after whistleblowing that the full image of the issues emerged. 

Mechanisms and Practices for Protecting Source Confidentiality

There is a need for whistleblower legislation to be supported by effective training, evaluation, and awareness-raising efforts of journalists regarding digital security and privacy best practices. Countries should actively promote whistleblowing programs in SOEs (State Owned Enterprises) and government agencies. Similarly, digital rights literacy should be developed in the newsrooms. This entails engaging in training to create awareness of what should be expected by journalists and what makes up abuse: cyber-bullying, doxing, trolling, etc. Since abuse is dynamic (meaning it evolves quickly), it is important to have regular meetings to talk about online harassment cases.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identifies numerous secure communication tools and technologies that journalists can use to protect their data and communications, end-to-end encryption, secure messaging apps, and encrypted email services. The first set of tools and technologies are end-to-end encrypted apps. For instance, the app called Signal can help to secure messaging and calls between journalists, editors, and their sources. File storage should be secured, and sharing should be encrypted. Using VeraCrypt, an open-source program, can add another layer of encryption to ensure that hackers who access the hard drive have to enter a highly-fortified folder to access the most sensitive information. 

For cloud storage, the most crucial feature for secure storage is the programs used to encrypt files locally on machines before being uploaded to cloud servers. Various services offer local encryption before upload, including Jungle Disk, SpiderOak, Tresorit, and the Keybase filesystem. Furthermore, it can become difficult for reporters who use many online databases and services to maintain updated passwords that are not reused across various services. An encrypted password manager is recommended to generate and store passwords for journalists. Important tools for managing passwords include KeePassXC, which is well-maintained, free, and open-source software, and LastPass. Concomitantly, it is worth noting that even the most adequately managed passwords should be used alongside two-factor authentication while logging in to online services such as Facebook, Twitter, email portals, and bank accounts. 

Finally, building partnerships and networks is Crucial for support and solidarity. Collaborative networks and partnerships among journalists and media organizations provide a collaborative and robust voice for disclosing abuses and create connections that allow for mentorship, skills enhancement, and knowledge-sharing. Thus, journalists should join professional associations and organizations that advocate for press freedom and digital rights. Such associations can play a pivotal role since they provide platforms for sharing experiences, knowledge, and resources within the journalism community to address common challenges that journalists face. For example, the Bureau Local and ‘L’Italia Delle Slot’ have partnered with organizations and individuals impacted by issues they cover, whereas Lännen Media journalists seek to cover a wider appeal that does not favor specific localities. 


Digital surveillance poses various challenges to the personal safety of journalists, constrains the freedom of expression, infringes on privacy, and impedes the free flow of information, resulting in self-censorship of newsrooms and journalists. It has elicited various consequences, including the infringement of civil rights, challenges to political democracy, and erosion of freedom. There is still a low level of awareness of digital safety and lower use of digital protection measures. Thus, it is quite important to protect journalistic freedom in the age of digital surveillance to protect information sources and ensure the integrity of the news presented. It is also crucial to promote whistleblowing and safeguard sources who provide pertinent information. To this end, training, awareness, partnerships and collaborations can provide journalists with the resources and knowledge needed for navigating the difficult online surveillance environment. 

Further research on the impact of technology on whistle-blowing to the media is a vital area of study that can help to safeguard the free flow of information from important journalistic sources of information. Policy changes should seek to embed whistleblower protection frameworks to encourage credible and free reporting and spur press freedom within the digital age.